Should grad students see grant budgets?

Oct 31 2013 Published by under [Et Al]

"How much does you project cost per year? How much do you cost?"

It's a serious question I asked my class the other day, and none of them could tell me. Yes, I realize that how a lab runs is not really something grad students should be overly invested in, as long as they have the resources they need. At the same time, it has an enormous impact on them directly or indirectly.

So I told them to go find out. Ask their PIs, estimate their consumables and reagent costs, etc. What surprised me most was that many of them returned to class to report that their PI had either declined to provide them information or told them they didn't need to know. Not even an estimate?

Hmmmmmm.

28 responses so far

  • scicurious says:

    This bothered me a lot. I always asked to see grant budgets, often PIs would say they'd send them, and then never did. I'd like to think they just forgot, but sometimes even repeated heckling produced nothing.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I can understand sensitivity around salaries, but that can be redacted, if necessary.

  • rs says:

    Forget about grad students, often post-docs/super post-docs/technicians also have no idea how much budget lab has in any given year, so they can plan a little bit ahead. Seriously, there is so much playing around with lives in science these days.

  • I often helped my adviser with his budgets (typing them into fastlane in the early days and then helping to generate them later one). It was invaluable experience for when I started doing my own. F&A, fringe, costs of supplies, what could and could not go on grants, and what I could hope to make as a postdoc or faculty member....these were all things I was not trying to learn on the fly later on.

  • Michelle Elekonich says:

    One of the best things my PhD advisor did was put his grants out for the lab to read including the reviews. At most state schools one's salary can be found with a simple search...plus shouldn't the students know what professors really make?

  • chkuo says:

    That was surprising. My former advisers let me read their proposals (including the budget), which helped me a lot. I'm doing the same for my students now.

  • YES!

    German grants make you list out a preliminary budget, for example. Also: you bill the government directly for purchasing over there. Money for reagents/instrumentation etc. does not go through the university at all- it's just between the PI and the granting agency.

    Running a lab is not inexpensive, and both the students and the taxpayers have a right to know how the money is spent. Budgets should be flexible, of course; but also reasonably transparent.

  • Respisci says:

    I share the grant summaries for the lab with the students and post-docs. These documents are redacted at the source such that the name of the salaried individual is not listed but the salary amount along with the various benefits are included (and if people were really keen they could extrapolate to determine whose salary is whose). On these summaries are the costs of materials, supplies, brokerage for customs, stationary, travel, maintenance of equipment, contracts for equipment, licenses etc. This is very educational for them to fully appreciate the cost of doing research and note all those "hidden" costs that sneak in.

  • Klara says:

    My PI doesn't share this info, which is quite annoying. I've no idea how much money we have to spend, so I always have to go ask him permission I want to try something a bit more expensive…

    Would of course also be helpful to get some idea how much everything costs, so that I won't have to conjure numbers out of air once/if I'd start my own lab…

    (I'm a postdoc; my PI hasn't shared info about his budget with anyone as far as I'm aware)

  • Jekka says:

    Just heard of a lab where everyone found out that the money was gone when they suddenly couldn't book core facilities online. PI realized he could no longer hide reality and called in three postdocs to tell them that they were out of a job come January. Everyone suffers more when info is withheld.

  • MorganPhD says:

    My grad and postdoc advisors have routinely shared full grant applications with salaries redacted. This includes supply budgets, etc. I see no reason not to do so. If grad school and postdocs are meant to train students for future careers, why hide a significant portion of the future job performed by a PI?

    If anything, maybe PI's should start redacting all salary info except their own. Make their trainees either A) really jealous or B) start looking for more lucrative careers.

  • eeke says:

    NIH budgets are modular and get paid out in chunks. The only budget that needs to be specified is a budget for personnel, and I can understand why PIs would prefer to keep this confidential. Your students can at least look up online how the NIH budgets work.

  • Ichemandrew says:

    Personally, I can see professors being reluctant to share budgets if they make prolific use of the somewhat dubious "summer pay" inclusion. I wasn't initially aware of this until I became senior enough to start ghost writing the grant proposals for my PI (he never writes his own). He takes about 90k or 1/6 (whichever is greater) off the top of every grant, in all instances referring to it as summer pay or the nearest approximant. We don't apply for finding that will personally net him less than that.

  • dr24hours says:

    I say salary transparancy for all. Show the budgets. If people knew how much PIs get paid, it can help them decide if they want it. Also, inequities can be addressed.

  • Elle says:

    Pro-transparency.
    My grad advisor was less open about budgets... I always needed his input as to what was worth buying or what we had to jerry-rig in the lab ourselves. Would've saved some time to know what kind of budget we were dealing with.
    Some small grants that grad students are eligible for require budgets - writing those were good practice for understanding how much projects cost (no matter how small) and put things in perspective too.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    For everyone complaining that they don't know the budget so they have to ask their PI when they want to buy something expensive, I think you're missing the point. Even with full transparency, I would be pissed if my lab dropped a couple grand without telling me, just because they thought the budget could take it. Budgeting over a three or five year span, especially when multiple grants are in play, is not just about the number you see on the sheet today. Budget categories can be pretty fluid and having both a long and short term plan for the budget is pretty key to making it all work. Those decisions shouldn't be changed on a whim just because you don't feel like trying to fix something.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Ichemandrew, That's not really possible with NSF funding, nor are salaries so enormous that $90k would represent anywhere near 1/6.

  • LD says:

    I've never shared budget details with anyone in my lab, and no one has ever asked. I think they trust me. Moreover, I only once took part of one month of summer salary off a grant in 23 years of funding, and that was essentially forced on me by a screw-up in the accounts department. Grant funds go to the research, not to me.

  • Klara says:

    PLS, I wasn't talking about buying fancy machines. I wouldn't even spend a grand without permission, wouldn't spend any money lightly, regardless of the budget. I was talking about materials essential for everyday work, of which some are pretty expensive too. I like trying slightly different variants or companies every now and then, always with a good reason. If there are cheaper alternatives, mixing the chemicals myself, or "fixing it", then of course that is what I do! But it IS annoying when my boss is on holidays, or conferences, or sick, and the entire lab slows down because some essentials can't be ordered. We need his signature for everything.. (sorry if you interpreted my first message like whining that I don't get to buy fancy things whenever I feel like it, that was absolutely not what I wanted to say, guess I should've taken the time to explain a bit better)

    A friend of mine gets, say, a budget of €10k a year from his PI to spend on whatever he wants. He has to decide whether he wants to run another microarray, visit a conference instead, or maybe save it to pay himself another couple of months to finish his thesis next year. That can't ruin any long-term plans and still gives people some room to take some own decisions, teaches them they can't have it all and really think about what would be the best buy for "their" money. It also leaves the PI with less interruptions of his day, if people can try a different antibody (€200-€300) without having to ask first...

  • DJMH says:

    I'm in favor of transparency, both in lab budgets and in household budgets (ie if your kid asks how much you earn). If you don't understand how money flows and is distributed, you don't understand how the world works. Period.

  • B says:

    I'm a grad student and I truly wish I could see the budget. Or at the very least have some ballpark idea of how much the lab can afford for consumables and reagents. Right now I just keep on ordering the standard consumables and hoping that they fit in the budget. I've always asked my PI before ordering things, including a few pieces of relatively expensive equipment, but he never gives me explicit answers. The lab is reasonably well funded, so I don't think I have to find the absolute cheapest way to do things, but I'm never sure.

    I've seen extremely well funded labs run out of money because they told everyone they can spend X per month, so of course everyone spent about 1.2*X on reagents with extremely minimal utility. They had to fire a tech and scrounge from department funds to keep the rest of the lab running until the next grant renewal.

    On the other hand, I've seen labs that used the absolute cheapest possible supplier of everything, only to waste months of work because the cell lines that everyone relied on wouldn't grow with "bargain" media.

  • Ichemandrew says:

    Ichemandrew, That's not really possible with NSF funding, nor are salaries so enormous that $90k would represent anywhere near 1/6.

    You are right, something about that felt too high even as I was typing it, so I just checked the budget from the last grant. He splits the money with a collaborator ~60:40. Figures from the last time around were (cumulative over 3 years): $103,719 for professor summer pay, $231,851 for 9 (!) graduate student salaries, $17,186 fringe (total funds requested: $798,941). So I suppose my indignation caused me exaggerate somewhat in my memory. The 90k figure was actually an exact take-home he received from a different, private funding source that I've been told not to disclose.

  • yellowfish says:

    I never saw anything other than the Aims of a grant until I was a senior postdoc and started helping write grant sections, and usually then I still never even saw the complete document... I think that would have helped with grantsmanship training a lot. When I submitted my own first grant the single most useful thing someone did was just give me a full application to read. I also came from a very well funded lab, but I had no idea how often my PI was applying for grants, which would have helped me understand how much work he put into keeping us well funded. I actually think learning more about budgets might reduce some complaining- for instance, I was blown away when I first found out how much benefits add on to the cost of a salary (and therefore how expensive having more techs would really be). I don't think people need to share their salaries, but learning how this whole process works is important for people making life decisions who want to understand how an academic career really works.

  • Geologist says:

    Nothing frustrates me more than young (or old!!) profs who don't know how to write up a budget for a grant. So I make sure my PHD students have completed at least one major budget before they graduate. They can see old or current ones of mine to help understand how to do it - no problem - but until they do it themselves they don't really understand the costs of fringe, overhead, students, supplies, and that for us, summer salary is limited to a percentage of our 9 month contract.

    Depending on funding source, summer salary for me or other PIs in our field can be difficult to obtain. NSF is notorious for not wanting to fund PIs (who are usually on 9 month contracts that are hard lines from the university). We are lucky to get a few weeks of summer funding if that. Whereas, other funding sources are more reasonable and realize that we should be paid for our time and efforts.

    Re: personnel costs - I usually let them see how little I"m making so that they realize that if they want to go into academia, this is what to expect regarding salary. But I cover up other employees (such as postdocs, etc.) because I feel it isn't my place to release that information without the consent of that person - if they really want to know, in most cases one can look that up. I'm also happy to give them ballpark figures without releasing personal information (e.g. How much should I expect to get paid as a Postdoc?)

    Re: my lab
    My people usually email me when they need to make big (and often small) purchases. I quickly approve them so there is no time wasted waiting on me to make a decision. If they want to understand the bigger picture of how much money we have or we need for both short term and long term, I"m fine with showing that - but if my schedule is particularly busy right then, then they may need to wait until I have time to walk them through the situation. Everyone needs to understand that those of us running these large labs are REALLY BUSY. I'm more than happy to explain/share this info, but don't expect that I will always be able to go through that right now. I'll pencil that into my schedule and then we'll do it, but other deadlines already on the calendar take precedence.

  • DJMH says:

    Why is the salary thing hard to deal with? Just lump *everyone's* salaries together (or everyone's except the PI's, if you want to go full monty), and everyone's benefits, for the purpose of showing the total lab budget. People can see easily enough that salary for five trainees runs $200K and benefits another 30% more, or whatever it might be. That way, the information is there without revealing anyone's personal salary.

  • […] This post by proflikesubstance raises an interesting question: should PhD students, and I think we can extend this question to include postdocs, have insight into their labs budget? […]

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Ichemandrew - agencies always ask for current and pending grants as part of the proposal, from which it is easy to work out if someone is double dipping on summer salary. Then, of course, there is the infamous IBS (something that students and post docs should learn about before they get themselves into trouble and especially before they take a research professorial position).

  • […] got money on his mind (and his mind on his money?) this week with a post he read on the blog Proflikesubstance  about the importance of knowing what your research costs.  After her and Liam’s recent birthday […]

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